The Buffalo Sabres' line combinations are a little like Western New York's weather: If you don't like them, wait a minute and they will change.
"We don't like to break lines up, but we make them up depending upon what we see," coach Rick Dudley said. "If it has to cost us a game or a point sometime now, we'll take that as long as we get to the point where, later in the season, we have the team playing like we want it to play. It's a funny thing, but you juggle your lines when you're winning and you juggle your lines when you're losing, but nobody notices unless you are losing."
The Sabres, however, juggle their lines when they're winning, losing, tying, playing well, playing poorly, even when they're not playing at all.
In recent days, Dudley has had Benoit Hogue at left wing and at center and in limbo. He now has checkers Christian Ruuttu and Dave Snuggerud with scorer Dave Andreychuk. Dale Hawerchuk is between Mike Foligno and Rick Vaive and Pierre Turgeon between Mike Hartman and Rob Ray. At practice Tuesday, Turgeon (knee) and Hawerchuk (groin) were missing, and Mikko Makela moved to the middle to center for Foligno and Vaive. John Tucker stepped between Hartman and Ray. Hartman has gone from the press box to the power play. Turgeon has gone from the power play to the bench. Don't hold Dudley to these combinations, either.
The reason, according to Dudley, is that a certain kind of performance begets playing time.
"We're trying to establish a certain philosophy with the players," the coach said Tuesday. "If you're playing, you're going to play. If you're not playing, you're going to sit. It doesn't matter who you are; that's the way it's going to be."
And by playing, Dudley doesn't mean just scoring goals.
"On any team you need certain kinds of players," he said. "You either have them, get them or develop them. This isn't so much a case of breaking in all new players, but we have to retool the thinking of some of these players. We're asking them to do some things that they've never been asked (to do).
"We have so many people who, in one form or another, have been the focal point. They're supposed to score the goals, they're supposed to make the rushes or the rink-long passes. Instead, now they have to go to the net. Now they have to work hard in the corners. Now they have to forecheck and that's tough for some of them. It's not to say they won't learn. It's just tough for them to get used to."
Dudley does this because with the departure of role players such as Scott Arniel and, until their play slipped, Kevin Maguire and Jeff Parker, he needs offensive-minded players such as Hawerchuk and Andreychuk to backcheck and Turgeon and Alexander Mogilny to forecheck.
If they don't do it, Dudley will sit them, even at the end of close games.
"If there are three guys on three different lines going in the dumper on a given night, then we might yank all three of them and substitute a player on each line," he said.
"We'll say 'OK boys. If you want to play like that, you're going to sit for awhile,' and we've done that. We're not ripping anybody and we're not going to, but you're not going to play. We've sat Andreychuk. We've sat Hawerchuk, Vaive, Foligno, Hogue for half a game. We sat a line of Hogue, Foligno and Vaive and later they came back and played outstanding. But if they're not going, if anyone's not going, we'll play who is. We want them to play as much as anybody. Everyone has to understand we're going to go with intensity."
Sitting stars can be risky business. More than one coach has been known to lose his team because of it, but Dudley maintains it's something that must be done.
"You can't send a guy to the minors anymore (waiver restrictions) and contracts won't do it. What are you going to tell a guy, 'Hey, you've got a contract coming up in four years'. A coach doesn't have much to work with besides ice time."
Asked if this approach drags down better players, Dudley conceded there can be a cost, but he's willing to pay it.
"At certain times, we've lost focus; sometimes for a period, sometimes for entire games," he said. "Sometimes you need to remind them they have to perform, but it's time to get to what needs to be done here. We're trying to establish a certain philosophy with the players."
Publicly, the players don't disagree.
"As much as I want to play more, you have to look at what he's trying to accomplish," Hawerchuk said. "We've got a lot of horses here, but we haven't been able to make all of the pieces fit.".
"Rick put me on the left side, with the idea that I would complement the other guys," Foligno said. "It's different for me, but somebody has to give them what they are looking for."
Turgeon skated on his own Tuesday and will likely make the trip to Philadelphia today for Thursday's game with the Flyers at the Spectrum. A final determination as to his playing status will be made there. Daren Puppa (back) and Mike Ramsey (rib) also worked out away from the team but are not expected to make the trip. . . . December is the busiest month for the Sabres. The schedule calls for 16 games, including an exhibition with the Soviets (Dec. 12 in The Aud). Fortunately, 10 of the 16 games are at home.